Boris Johnson, who has sought comparison with Winston Churchill, denounced spending national lottery money to save the wartime leader’s personal papers for the nation.
Confidential files released to the National Archives reveal that a vituperative attack on the initiative by Johnson, then a Daily Telegraph columnist, coincided with Downing Street suspicions over ownership of past prime ministers’ private records.
In an article published in April 1995, Johnson informed readers that £12.5m given by the lottery-supported National Heritage Memorial Fund to purchase the Churchill papers was frittering away money on pointless projects and benefiting Tory grandees.
“Maybe,” Johnson observed, punters “will … look at the way the lottery cash is spent, [and] conclude that seldom in the field of human avarice was so much spent by so many on so little …”
He questioned whether the money should find its way into the pockets of Churchill’s grandson, the MP and socialite also called Winston Churchill, “to keep the papers in this country …” He suggested people might conclude “that this is the most elegant means yet devised of taking from the poor to give to the rich”.
Johnson concluded his article by remarking that a successful lottery in Ontario had “run out of sporting and artistic projects to endow” and switched it to “healthcare for the elderly – with no loss of ticket sales”.
Although there had been “caterwauling from the arts world”, Johnson added, British taxpayers might welcome a similar change in beneficiaries.
His unsentimental approach to Churchill’s records may seem surprising given that in 2014 he published a eulogistic biography of the former Conservative premier.
However, compared with private misgivings expressed by the then cabinet secretary, Sir Robin Butler, in official files, Johnson’s views appear less exceptional.
In a memo drawn up for John Major in early 1991, Butler made clear his disapproval of the behaviour of previous prime ministers.
When Churchill left office, Butler said, “he took away with him a vast collection of papers, some originals, some copies, which comprised both personal and official records and set up a trust fund to ensure that any financial benefit from the use of the archives accrued to his heirs”.
In 1990, Butler continued, he had been approached on behalf of Harold Wilson’s trustees “on a proposal that Lord Wilson’s archive, including his N10 papers, be sold to a Canadian university”.
It promoted, for Butler, the “instinctive feeling that it is inappropriate for a prime minister’s archive to be sold to a foreign, albeit Commonwealth country”.
Following that experience, the files reveal, Butler contacted Margaret Thatcher seeking an undertaking “which would be binding upon her heirs”, that her personal archive would not be transferred out of the UK.
Thatcher agreed on behalf of her children subject to one proviso, Butler added, that if they fell into “unforeseen conditions of great hardship” then “first refusal of purchase would go to the government”.
Butler noted: “I am not happy about the last caveat. I do not think that the government should be put in the position of having to buy back, under any circumstances, papers which are copies of officials’ records simply in order to retain control over them.”
On top of the five-page memo, Major responded with a handwritten note agreeing to the cabinet secretary’s proposals and adding: “I’d like to read away carefully … but I am sure [Butler] is right!”
When purchase of the Churchill archive was confirmed in 1995 it was Major who tried to dress it up with an aura of historical glory, attempting to have the date of the announcement shifted to around VE Day. Lord Rothschild, the then chair of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, resisted.